Dear Bubby

Dear Bubby,

I am so sad that I was only a baby when you were nifteres, and I never got to know you. But my mommy always tells me that you loved me so much. During the one year of my life that you were alive, I gave you so much joy. Each time you saw me, your face lit up. You played with me and made me giggle. You held me and made me feel loved.

The night before you were nifteres, you had a small procedure, and afterward they brought you to the critical care unit. The nurses weren’t used to a patient having as many visitors as you did, and they were aggravated about it. They definitely would not have been happy to see a baby there. But you were really sick, and Mommy knew you might never see me again.  She knew how much joy I brought to you. Shhh…don’t tell anyone – but she snuck me in. You were too weak to hold me or coo to me. But you gave me a smile. I know I am lucky that I was the last grandchild you smiled at.

Sometimes I wish you could still be here with me. My mother tells me how much you would love hearing cute stories about me and cuddling me while reading me books. You would love to buy me new dolls and books, and you would love to talk to me on the phone.

She tells me that we would come to you for yamim tovim together with all the cousins, and it would be such a blast! I feel so sad that I lost out on that experience. When I play with all my cousins, Mommy tells me that you would have such nachas watching all your eineklach playing together. All I know is that I love playing with them, and I love when we spend time together. It is sad that we can’t all play together in your house.

You missed most of my milestones. You missed when I started walking and talking. You never had a chance to see how inquisitive I am, how I love learning or to see my bouncing curls as I skip and giggle with carefree joy.  I look so big in my uniform, but you never got to see me in it. Do you even know that your granddaughter is an aspiring ballerina? Well, I am. I do ballet all around my house. I twirl and pirouette. I walk on tippy-toes and jump up. But if this worries you, don’t let it— because when I grow up I want to be a tzaddekes.

Guess what?! On Wednesday we are having our aleph-bais siyum. I get to wear my Shabbos clothes! My mommy will brush my hair until there are no knots and my curls frame my cheeks. Then she will look at my sparkling green eyes and the touch of freckles that light up my face. She will tell me how proud you would be. She will tell me that I have your sparkling green eyes. I don’t know what your eyes look like, but I do believe that I would make you proud.

Tonight I sounded out words and wrote them down. I figured out that Chanukah is spelled with a chof, a nun and a kof. Mommy said that we have to save this paper with my first words. I told her that I can show it to you when Mashiach comes. She also wants to save my first sight-word book to show you. I told Mommy that I might not be “in this age” anymore by then. But she said we can still save it for you.

I wish my mommy could tell you about all the good middos I have. Yesterday, I held the door open for her even though my hands were so full of things. That is because it was kibbud av v’eim week in school. Now it isn’t anymore, but maybe sometimes I’ll still do that mitzvah.

Mommy was happy that I made a kiddush Hashem at the bank. That’s because I got a lollipop and was having fun. But don’t worry – as long as I am in the mood, I will try to make “kiddush Hashems.”

Sometimes if I am hungry or tired, I get very kvetchy. Probably on those days my mommy would call you up and say, “I have a kvetchy little girl in my house.” But don’t be sad that sometimes I get “kwetchy” and maybe even talk with chutzpah.  I think that as I get older and learn more about good middos, I will give you lots of nachas.

I am still just a little girl. But I know that in a way you and Zeidy and Tante Esti and Uncle Chesky will always be part of my life. Because I always hear about you.  And I really do want to give all of you nachas up in shamayim.

Still, like my mommy I do wish that today you could see how cute I am, that today I could talk to you on the phone and that today I could show you my first page of words.

My doll is crying now. I have to go take care of her. So, bye.

Love,

A Little Girl with Sparkling Green Eyes who Never Got a Chance to Know Her Bubby

Friendships Can Make all the Difference

Do you remember how the years of high school can be filled with social stigma and social anxiety? Social circles and social acceptance are of utmost importance. I remember girls who wouldn’t walk down the hall to get a drink without a friend, as others might view them as being friendless. That was not a risk worth taking. Are you nodding along, even as you laugh at how silly this sounds?

The truth is, friendship really is important. Friends are influential – for the good and for the bad. A friend can help a person find herself – who she is and who she wants to become. A friend can encourage and inspire. A good friend continues to fill this role as one moves on through the various stages of life.

In the first perek of Pirkei Avos, the sixth mishnah tells us: “קנה לך חבר” – be mindful of who your friends are. Make sure that you are forming relationships that will help you grow and change, relationships that will allow you to learn and teach, relationships that will make you feel good about yourself so that you can be a positive, productive person.

A negative friendship will put you on a downward spiral. You might find yourself doing things you don’t really feel comfortable doing, going places you never went before, wearing clothing that are not up to your tznius standards or letting your children do things that are not really on par with your chinuch standards.  In such a friendship, you might feel anxious, confused and down on yourself, and when you stop to think about it, you might feel that the things you are busy with are not really “you.”

A positive friendship, on the other hand, can help bring out your ma’alos and strengths. Such a friendship engenders good feelings and pushes you to want to be a better “you.” In the company of a good friend, it is often easier to make the right decisions.

On the first day of my year in sixth grade, a new girl walked into the classroom, and we all realized we had a star in our class. I felt so lucky that she chose me to be her friend – her best friend. My new friend brought out my fun side, as well as the introspective side of me. As the years went by, and this girl continued to impress our teachers and amaze the principals, I really felt lucky that she was my very best friend. I had my social standing with a friend who was helping me grow.

Eventually we grew apart. But I can look back and see how our friendship helped mold me as a person. Years later, already married with children, I became acquainted with a woman in my town. Over time and with shared experiences, we eventually became close friends. I know how lucky I am for the friendship that we have. My friend is there for me whenever I need her. We share chinuch concerns and ideas – both practical and theoretical – and support each other when making difficult decisions. She is there for me when I am down because of a parent or sibling’s yahrtzeit; she helps me to get to the crux of what I’m experiencing so that I can move on. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses; we build on the strengths and encourage through the weaknesses.

 And so I try to use my friendships for growth, and I try to be a friend who can inspire growth.  I hope I am passing down to my children the lesson of having a good friend and of being a good friend.  I hope that my parents are looking down and having nachas from the friends I have, the friend I am and the friend I have taught my children to be.

This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

My Nephew Eli

He was gentle and he was kind. He was wise and witty. He was a dazzling beacon of sunlight to all those who knew him. He was my nephew – my nephew Eli whom I never really knew because of the distance we lived from each other.

He was a courageous warrior, fighting his sickness for four long years, unwilling to surrender.  But the disease was more powerful than he was and eventually took over his body. On September 29, 2016 my nephew Eli returned his neshamah to Shamayim. He was only eleven years old.

As his father wrote, “It is with forever shattered hearts that Eli was niftar.”

I realize I lost out on an opportunity to get to know this valiant soldier.

So I asked his parents to tell me about Eli, about the extraordinary little boy whom I never really knew. And I now echo his father. It is with a forever shattered heart that I will never know Eli the way I would like to.

When Eli was five years old, an adult would have been forgiven for thinking that he was closer to twenty. He astounded everyone when he asked his zaydie for a set of Chumashim for his afikomen present that year. His zaydie would have been fine with buying him a remote control car or a scooter. But at that young age, Torah was what he cherished. When he received his gift, he went outside, sat on his big electric car and read the pesukim of the Chumash. He didn’t yet understand what he was saying, but he understood the pleasure that the timeless words were giving him.

By the time he was seven he had read through the entire Chamishah Chumshei Torah. As he got older, just reading the words wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more knowledge, more understanding. And so he started reading The Medrash Says. Like a sponge, he soaked everything up. He asked questions to his zaydie, a big talmid chacham, and zaydie would be astounded at his young grandson’s knowledge.

Sadly, by the time Eli’s class was starting to learn mishnayos, he was already sick, only attending school sporadically. One day his father drove him to school and arranged a time to pick him up shortly after. Eli walked into his classroom and was exposed to mishnayos for the first time. By the time his father came to pick him up, Eli had learned two mishnayos ba’al peh.

It wasn’t just Torah that he loved – he loved tefillah too. Eli loved to daven, especially with his zaydie. He always wanted to go to his grandparents’ home for Shabbos so that he could spend time davening in shul with zaydie. Eli didn’t want to lose out on an opportunity to connect with his Borei Olam and therefore had many alarms on his phone to remind him about different tefillos. As he left the hospital, it didn’t matter that he had just been through harsh treatments; often, shul was the first place he stopped.

Yes, you can be forgiven for thinking that we are talking about an adult. But the amazing thing was that if you looked at Eli, you saw a child. He loved to play and joke. He liked reading and playing wii games. He was a kind, caring and fun-loving brother. He was very sensitive to the needs of his siblings, giving each one what they needed.

And he was a compassionate friend as well. He cared about his classmates and was the first to run over to console a friend who was hurt. He acted with extreme selflessness. Whether it was giving his time or his snack, it was done with a smile. As a letter from his classmate testifies: “He was the brightest, sweetest, most loving, sharing boy. “

Eli accepted his challenges. While most children were in school and riding bikes, Eli had to be admitted time and time again to Children’s Hospital. Maybe for treatment. Maybe because he had fever or maybe for extreme pain. But he didn’t complain. His attitude belied his age. He wanted to do what needed to be done and then continue on with life.

He had to take foul-tasting medicine with awful side effects. But he took it with acceptance. He was also scrupulously honest. If it was time to take his medicine, he would tell his mother he needed ten more minutes. His mother trusted that he would come get it when he said he would – and he did. He was so young, and yet he understood that each word we utter has value. In his mother’s words: “I learned about emes from my son.”

The Gradon house is open to many guests. Some of the regular guests are recovering addicts. About eight months ago, one of the guests had just reached a four-year anniversary for his recovery. Each guest sitting around the table had the opportunity to say something positive about this person. When they came to Eli, his father passed over him. But he said, “No, I also want to say something.” Everyone stopped to pay closer attention to this child. What was he going to say? With a maturity beyond his years he said, “Just as you conquered your addiction, so too, you should conquer your aveiros.”

Eli had no aveiros to conquer. He was only a katan. But his love of learning, of Torah and mitzvos, made him seem like a tremendous gadol. And as family friend said, “We were not zocheh to keep Eli.”

I feel sad that I didn’t have enough of an opportunity to know this little tzaddik who was my nephew. But I learned a lesson. Family is most important. Many of our families are large, and we have extensive extended family as well. This is something that is so easy to take for granted. But I can say, “Eli, in your death, you have taught me the value of family.”

Eli should be a meilitz yosher for his parents and siblings and for all of his extended family, and may we be zocheh to the geulah sheleimah very soon.

Vulnerable

Once upon a time there was a mother and a daughter. They lived happy, peaceful lives. Although they lived in different towns, they spoke daily. They shared their day’s grievances. They shared their day’s hopes. They shared all the nitty-gritty that life has to offer. Mom and Daughter each knew that they were loved by one another, even though they rarely said the words, “I love you.”

One day Mom went to the doctor with a concern, hoping to hear that it was nothing. But doctor did not dismiss her concern. Quite the opposite. He told her she was very, very sick.

Over the next few years, Daughter flew in and out to spend time with Mom. They sat at the supper table together talking about her treatments. They went shopping together, with Mom treating daughter. At night, they sat on the beds in Mom’s room laughing. Although the love between the two was tangible, rarely did they say the words “I love you.”

Mom was getting sicker. Daughter flew in more often. The conversations were shorter and the laughs less frequent. Daughter’s heart was aching. Mom knew that it was. Daughter was so scared of Mom dying. Mom knew that she was scared. Mom loved Daughter with a fierce intensity. Daughter loved her back. But rarely did they say the words, “I love you.”

Mom was very sick. Doctors were giving up. Daughter called Mom throughout the day, and the conversations ended with, “I love you.” Daughter knew that Mom didn’t want to die without saying those words.

Mom was lying on her deathbed in the hospital. Daughter was with her. She sat next to Mom, bent down to her ear and whispered, “I love you, Mommy.”

*************

Recently my husband’s sister lost a child. She ended one of our text conversations with, “Love you.” This is not the way she usually speaks. And I recognized that deep, vulnerable state she is in right now. I connected with it because I remember my mother’s deep emotional state when she said those words to me.

It meant, “Miriam, I am dying. I am leaving you in this world without me. I will not be here to watch you raise your children. I won’t be here when your children reach milestones or for any future births. I won’t be able to discuss any more of the daily humdrum that life offers. You will be without me for yamim tovim. I know how hard this is. You just lost your father and older sister. Another loss is devastating. I wish I wasn’t dying. I want to stay with you. Miriam, it isn’t in my control, but I love you.”

Sometimes I wonder what would have been if we would have been more candid with our feelings toward each other, expressing them openly and allowing the other to see our emotional vulnerability. Would our relationship have been even stronger? I do wish I could go back in time and try it out. But of course, it is too late for that.

So I was thinking: Should I work on my current relationships? Should I try to take them to that place of open, sincere, emotional candidness? What will I gain? Would working on such a thing be considered avodas Hashem? If yes, then how?

Okay, so you can laugh at me. But I texted a few friends this question. We spoke about it, and I think I am starting to get it.

I need to work through anything that I carry that might cause me to react in a way that can be hurtful to others and myself. Someone might say something that will trigger feelings of pain over my mother’s death. I can tell myself that I am being ridiculous and decide to ignore the pain that I am feeling. However, if I do that I will be creating a bubbling anxiety inside of me. Sooner or later I will explode and lash out at whoever happens to be around (who totally doesn’t deserve it). That behavior isn’t okay.

Hashem created Adam. He then said, “It is not good for man to be alone,” and he created Chavah. Hashem doesn’t want us to be alone. He gave us family and friends so that we can grow together.

Vulnerability is a gift from Hashem. It is a tool He has given us so that we can be connected, so that together we can support and encourage one another along our personal journeys. I can use this tool when something is triggering my pain – any pain from any area of life.

That’s connection.

When I use the tool of vulnerability to connect I am exposing my true self. I am letting down my defenses. I have nothing to guard anymore. I won’t be justifying anything and therefore will be ready to take in Hashem’s messages for me. I will feel lighter inside. I won’t have that bubbling anxiety in me, and I will be a happier person.

Using this tool can bring me to menuchas hanefesh and to real simchah.

And reaching that level of simchah is avodas Hashem.

I got my answer. I can work on this part of my relationship with family and friends now, knowing what I missed out on because I didn’t do so with my parents and siblings.

But it is a struggle. It feels awkward to be so exposed.

I find it easier to expose my true self to Hashem. With Hashem, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. But I have a friend who has a hard time talking to Hashem from a place of vulnerability.

You can laugh again, but we made a joint decision to work on ourselves in this area. She will tell me each day about an open conversation she had with Hashem, and I will tell her about having such a conversation with a friend. I am not sure where this will lead us. But I think it will be to someplace good.

Perhaps if I work on this with people in my life today, the feelings of regret that I wasn’t open enough with my mother will diminish. So vulnerability, here I come!

Regular Me

 

One day I stopped and said, “I was always plain ordinary me. I am just so regular. What happened? My life is not regular anymore.”

Regular is a very broad word. What is regular for me may not be regular for someone else. But I think that most people will agree that their vison of regular does not include sitting at the bedside of three family members, watching them die. My vision of regular did not include losing parents at such a young age. My vision of regular did not include going to a cemetery on a fairly regular basis.

My vision of regular was having my parents around for many years. My vison of regular was having my parents around as I raised my own children. My vison of regular was for all my siblings to get married and raise their own families. My vision of regular was to grow together even as we build our own families.

But regular seemed to forget about my family. At the young age of fourteen, my brother died from leukemia. At the time I thought this was our family’s big tragedy. From here on, it would be smooth sailing. I got married shortly afterward, and things were good. But one fine day my sister received a diagnosis of cancer. Three days later, my mother also did.

Over the next few years, I lived with constant fear. We were always waiting. Waiting for my mother’s scans and waiting for my sister’s test results. If one of their tests came back looking good, it didn’t mean that the other’s would. There were ups, there were downs. There was hope, and there was despair. There was anticipation, and there was dejection. There was courage, and there was faith.

But with all the faith we had, we couldn’t have ever possibly imagined that one night, in the middle of a relative’s chasunah, my father would have a massive heart attack and die. We were confused. We were davening so much for our mother and sister. So my father died? There wasn’t time to dwell on it. My sister was sick and withering away. We had to put all of our kochos into her refuah. Eight months later, she was nifteres, and eighteen months after that, we sat shivah for my mother.

After that shivah I realized I had no emergency to focus on anymore. There was no one sick and no distractions. It was time to look at myself – definitely something I didn’t want to do. It is so much easier to keep on running. I didn’t like who I had become. I was distracted and unfocused. I was sad and impatient.

And so began my own healing process. I had to learn that emotions are real. When I feel sad it is okay to feel it. I feel better when I accept my pain and don’t push it away.

I had to realize that guilt was harming me. I know I did what I could for both my mother and my sister. Guilt was telling me that I had lost out on opportunities. I had to make sure this guilt would not disrupt my wellbeing.

I had to learn how to open up more to my friends. They wanted to support me; I just needed to let them. I was very emotionally closed. To open up and let someone deep in to the most painful places was so scary. But to remain alone in my pain was even worse.

I had to work very hard on accepting that everything that happened was exactly the way Hashem wanted it to happen. I wasn’t in charge. I couldn’t have done things differently for a different outcome.

At times I still feel sad and lonely. I still wonder what it would be like if my whole family would be alive. I still feel the need to turn to my parents for so many different reasons. I miss my sister so, so much. I wonder what my brother’s wife would have been like and how many children they might have had.

My challenges have made it necessary to work on myself consistently and constantly.

It isn’t easy because I just want to be regular – normal. By now I have learned that I am normal, but my normal is different than the way I thought it would be. I am learning acceptance over and over again. The more I accept, the calmer I feel.

The pain of losing a parent at any age is very difficult. Because of my experiences I am able to help out others going through similar experiences. This is part of my regular. I always thought that I would have a different regular. But my life is just as it is supposed to be. Regular custom-made for me

Dear Tanta Goldy

 

Dear Tanta Goldy,

Although you were sick for a long while, with your petirah I realize how much I learned from you and how very much I miss you. You were so warm and caring, with a heart open wide toward anyone you met. You never judged people for their flaws and frailties; rather, you always saw a whole person, who, like everyone, had both positive attributes and imperfections. With the absence of judgment, your heart was open to just simply caring.

The other day during a chat with a relative, the conversation turned to a few girls in need of shidduchim. I said, “I feel so bad for them. I wish they would get married. But I’m so powerless. What can I do?”  After thinking for a moment, I added, “I could do something. I could daven more for them. The problem is that I don’t. Not because I don’t care. But because my list for what I am davening for is already so long. My emotional energy is spent before I can finish davening. Then I stopped and said, “But that wasn’t Tanta Goldy.” My emotional capacity for empathy is so limited.  But Tanta Goldy, yours was not. Your emotional capacity was limitless. You felt the pain of others so acutely.

Your Shabbos table was always full of guests – and not the guests we all want to have, but rather, those we don’t want to have, people who were limited emotionally or mentally. You saw Yidden who needed a Shabbos seudah, and your heart opened wide. Saying no to those that needed you caused you tremendous pain.

As Uncle Tzvi told me, when a meshulach came, you didn’t just give the tzedakah. You felt the person’s pain. And you would tell Uncle Tzvi how your heart was breaking for this meshulach who had to leave his home to collect for his challenging situation.

Sometimes when I call a person’s name I think about how I am uttering a few syllables, but at the same time, I am expressing a whole world. Each person has so many layers: things that make them happy and things that make them sad. Worries and fears, hopes and aspirations. Middos they want to work on and middos they excel in.

And you, Tanta Goldy, saw only the positive. The better middos. The secret dreams. The noble aspirations. Not only that, but you encouraged people to really follow their hopes and hearts to be all they could be.

Tan-ta Gol-dy…four syllables. Four syllables that convey a heart that encompassed the whole world. I wish I could feel for others as you did because what you had was true ahavas Yisrael.

This is your legacy, Tanta Goldy, which is being passed down from your children and grandchildren to theirs: how mommy or bubby always saw the good in people and loved each Yid.

I recognized something great in you. It would be a pity to just move on. I don’t think that your legacy has to be just for your own descendants. No. A caring heart wishes everyone to have a caring heart.

I wish my heart could be open as wide as yours. I want to try. I know so many people with so many needs. I am going to try to incorporate more tefillos for others into my daily davening. I need to strengthen my empathy muscle.

Tanta Goldy, it isn’t easy to reach your level of emotional empathy. But I am determined to try. I want to bring your legacy into my family. And so in my heart, you will remain alive, as I try to emulate your ways.

If I Were Dr. Seuss

 

If I was Dr. Seuss, my latest book might sound like this:  I miss my parents every day, I always miss them in every way. I miss them when I’m here, and I miss them when I’m there. I miss them when I’m feeling sad, I miss them when I’m feeling glad. Do you miss them also? Do you, can you feel my pain? I miss them when it’s simchah-time, and I miss them when it’s yom-tov time.

The words “yom-tov time” hit me with a jolt.  I want to have what I once had and for my family to be the way it once was. And there is nothing like a yom-tov season to bring up those feelings. I will never again experience yom tov at my parents’ house: the early mornings where we bleary-eyed sisters sauntered into the kitchen with our energetic toddlers are no more. Those long coffee shmuesses and the leibedike yom-tov meals won’t happen anymore. No more yom-tov afternoon walks in my parents’ neighborhood or the blissfully quiet, late-night, adult-only seudahs.

I miss the unique feel and flavor, smells and sights of each yom-tov I experienced in my parents’ home. By nature I am a sentimental person. I always look back at days gone by with nostalgia – and life doesn’t stand still. People and circumstances are constantly changing. But the forced change came too early to my family. Death happened to people who were so young, heightening my feelings of longing for what once was.

Yet the memories that I have provide a strong basis for me of what I would like to pass down to my children. I want my children to enjoy family the way I enjoyed it. I want my children to enjoy talking, laughing and singing zemiros together. I want my children to want to come back home with their families, to enjoy the flavors and smells that are part of their childhood.

Hashem has given me a lot of berachah in my life. I won’t let the sadness and pain cause me to forget that.  I have a wonderful legacy to pass down that can’t get lost in the grief. I want to give my own children the gift of what I once had. It won’t be the same. It can’t be the same. We are different people. We are creating our own dynamics. And so our own unique approach to life, interwoven with my parents’ legacy, can be beautiful and special.

Their legacy is one of simchas hachayim. Despite the challenges they grappled with, my parents’ home was a joyful place, where laughter was constantly heard. And yom-tov time brought a lot of that. The ruchniyus and gashmiyus mixed together to create joyful, meaningful experiences.

My parents had true nachas from their family. They loved yom tov, when we would spend time together, enjoying divrei Torah interspersed with wit and humor. Every year on the first night of Sukkos my father would declare that our sukkah was the nicest in the neighborhood, and we all laughed. We laughed at the repetitiveness of his annual remarks, and we laughed because our sukkah was absolutely not the nicest. My father saw a sukkah that he built with my brother and decorated with my younger sister’s school-made projects. My father saw that for the next eight days he would enjoy family seudahs in this sukkah. He saw the night meals where we would talk and relax and the day meals where a bunch of screaming girls would run away from the bees. And to him that meant we had the nicest sukkah.

Pesach brought similar feelings. My father took great pride in our Seder table. The Sedarim that we shared with both sets of grandparents made it extra-special. My grandfather, a survivor of the Holocaust, relived the miracles of his life, sharing his appreciation for his personal cheirus with us. My mother basked in joy as she listened to her father speak, repeating to us children what we didn’t understand. I was the first to get married, but I was never ready to stop coming home. Because when there were four generations sitting at a Seder table, I knew I was experiencing something unique and exhilarating.

I’m not Dr. Seuss. I never will be. But in my own language I can say, “I will always miss my parents, especially at yom-tov time.”

I hope that as my children marry and move on, they will also want to come running back for more, sharing and describing to their children our family minhagim, jokes, zemiros – our own legacy, which I am passing down as a continuation of what my parents and grandparents created and passed on to me. And then I will really feel and know that my parents’ memory continues to live on.

Finding Hope

Recently I was talking to a few friends, and the conversation turned to the word hope and its definition. I realized that for me the definition of hope is recognizing that regardless of what comes my way, I can be okay. I might have to work through the emotions of sadness, anger fear… but at the end I can be okay.

A few weeks before my mother died, she called me up. She had just gotten off the phone from the doctor. He had said to her, “I will do my best, but the cancer is all over. I don’t think that there is much I can do.”

She was scared, and she was devastated. She really didn’t want to die. I was on the way out to the grocery store when she called me up with this bitter news.

Once again I was left holding the phone, wondering how I was supposed to know what to say to my mother who was young, who wanted to live, but had just been given a death sentence. I answered something that was probably not so appropriate, but I had nothing better so say. “Ma,” I said, “you have three up there and three down here. Why are you so afraid to die?”

She answered and said, “I am not so afraid to die. I just feel so bad for the three of you down here.”

In her fear and in her pain she was focusing on how the three of us down here, still in this world, and her concern for us. She knew that we would be immensely affected by her passing. She knew that we would suffer terrible pangs of loss. She knew that continuing onward would be a painful journey for us.

Today I wish I could continue that conversation with her. I would tell her that yes, her absence and my father’s absence have left a terrible void in me. I feel bereft and lonely. I feel as if I am left without guidance. I miss them on a daily basis and even more so when there is a simchah or a yom tov.

But I yearn so deeply to continue the conversation with her.  I long to tell her how much she and my father have given me. Although I constantly mourn their absence, they haven’t left us with nothing. It is from them that I learned that we can go on, even with pain. We can go onward and feel joyful despite the pain that can arise at any given moment.  They left us with the gift of continuing onward. They have left us with the gift of hope.

What Does Hashem Want from Me Now? Learning to Let Go

I had called Esti on her office line on that Tuesday afternoon. Oftentimes when she was at work she didn’t answer the phone. It meant that she was probably in a meeting. During the workday she never answered her cell phone. So it didn’t make much sense that I even tried calling her on that phone. But what made even less sense was that she answered.

“Esti,” I said, “why are you answering this phone? How come you’re not at work? Is everything okay?” And Esti, with her typical dry humor responded, “No, how did you hear already? I’m at the hospital. I just found out that my cancer came back.”

Looking back, I can tell you that I was very, very scared. But I think I became numb, and this helped me to continue functioning. She had made the decision not to tell my parents anything until she met with the doctor and had more details of her treatment plan. It was a very hard week for me. I was nervous and scared, and it was hard to pretend with my mother that everything was fine and normal.

By the time Friday rolled around, I was exhausted. I wanted to bench licht, plop on the couch and fall asleep. All I wanted was to run away from this nightmare. So when my mother called me close to Shabbos, I decided not to answer her call. I simply wasn’t in the mood of talking. But her message went something like this, “Miriam, I know you are busy. But this is an emergency. I must speak to you right away. Call me when you get this message.”

So I lunged for the phone and said, “Ma, is everything okay. What is going on?” And she responded, “Miriam, I don’t know how to say this. But I just came back from the doctor. I found out that I have cancer.”

The doctors were afraid that it had spread to her lungs. She was overpowered with fear as she awaited the results. Each time I spoke to her, I heard the fear in her voice. I felt so bad for her. And yet I knew something that she didn’t know yet. I knew something that would be even harder for her to deal with. I knew that my sister Esti had a really bad diagnosis, and it was going to devastate her.

Shushan Purim that year was the day of Esti’s appointment. Together we sat in a sterile, white, eerily silent room in Sloan Kettering. After what seemed like an endless wait, the doctor walked in. “Is this terminal?” she asked. “Am I going to die?” And without missing a beat he responded, “I never saw anyone live more than five years with this.”

I came home sad, scared and devastated. I wasn’t home too long when my mother called. And she sounded good. Really good. She was so relieved. She had just gotten back her results. No, it hadn’t spread to her lungs, and it looked like she would be okay! Although I was so happy for her, I couldn’t help but think, Ma, you have no idea what kind of phone call you are getting tonight.

It wasn’t too much later that she called me up hysterical. In a panicky voice her words burst forth, “Miriam, is Esti going to die? Am I going to lose another child?” I remember holding the phone and thinking, I am only 28 years old. How in the world am I supposed to know how to answer such a question?

But at that moment I made a decision. I decided that I would do whatever I possibly could to ease as much pain as possible. I will do anything I can to bring a little more comfort to my sick family members. I didn’t realize it, but essentially I was saying, “Hashem, I will let you have control of my life up until a certain point. I don’t much like what you have given me until now. So you can still control my life a little bit. But I will take over the rest. Because I need to make sure that my mother and sister have as little suffering as possible, and I trust myself more than I trust You.

There are many examples of where this attitude came in to play.

Whenever Esti had an emergency, she had an amazing support system of friends and relatives that would be by her side in seconds. But I was stuck feeling helpless in Lakewood. I needed to feel as if I was in control. So in a frenzied state I would call this friend and that relative. I had to feel like I was doing something, when in reality there was nothing I could do. The most beneficial thing would have been for me to daven. But I was so worked up, I couldn’t even sit still to daven. I had to take action to feel as if I could make a difference.

Shortly after she got married, she confided to me her desire for just one baby. “I know I can’t have a big family,” she said. And then her voce turned pleading, “But I wish I could have just one child of my own.” Immediately I went into high-speed doing mode. I called A Time and Bonei Olam for her. I wanted to get the process going – to see what I could do to help Esti have that baby.

Most sisters would make that initial phone call to help out a sick sister. There was nothing wrong with the fact that I wanted to help her out. The problem was that I “forgot” that Hashem is in charge. My mindset was what I could do. This is up to me. Once again my anxiety to provide her with a solution prevented me from davening.

My mother was in the hands of a really capable and caring doctor. One day he came to my mother with the news that he had accepted a job out of state. My mother asked him which doctor from the practice he would recommend for her to use going forward. He mentioned one doctor’s name, and that doctor became my mother’s new doctor.

But he was not a good doctor. He didn’t care. He didn’t invest enough of himself into his patients. And my mother started deteriorating under his care. It took a while until we realized that this doctor wasn’t doing enough for my mother. His cavalier attitude really seemed to be hindering my mother’s recovery. One day it hit me with a jolt that this doctor was not working. I said, “Ma, why are you still using this doctor?  Let’s switch.” We did research, and my mother switched to a different doctor who practiced out of a different hospital.

After my mother’s petirah, I was left with such anger at myself. I thought that if I would have taken action earlier and my mother would have switched doctors sooner, then maybe she would have lived a few more months. I berated and scolded myself over and over again. I forgot that death is not in my hands, but in the hands of Hashem.

My mother was really not well. Someone had to go be with her. My sisters had both gone recently, and now it was my turn. I flew in and went straight from the airport to the hospital. I stayed there with her that night. The next day I was with her most of the day, only leaving to care for my baby.  The following night I stayed with her again. I fell asleep sitting up in a chair right next to her bed.

Ordinary People

 

I grew up in the shadow of ordinary, thinking that my family name was that of plain, ordinary people. My parents were average people living ordinary lives. Or so I thought.

Because of the small size of the small town that I grew up in, my family was well known. But when asked what my last name was, I never felt pride saying it. After all we were just a regular, ordinary family.

And then one night my ordinary father had a massive heart attack and died instantly. My ordinary mother was very sick at the time. But determined to live, she battled her disease with all her energy until she succumbed to it shortly thereafter.

These weren’t just my family’s tragedies but the city’s tragedy. And so the house filled up in the morning with all the comforters, only emptying late at night. People had a lot to say about my seemingly ordinary parents.

One theme I heard over and over again was how lucky I was to have such warm memories. Each time I heard these words I wanted to scream, “Don’t you know that my father is too young to be a memory?” I don’t want the memories – I want him. I want them.

Today I am proud of my seemingly ordinary parents. Today I know that they led noble lives in an extraordinary way.

They were quiet people who did what needed to be done without any fanfare. This included fulfilling the mitzvah of kibbud av v’eim. I was already a teen when I realized that they went to extraordinary lengths to do what needed to be done for their parents.

I can’t tell you how they did it. My father’s humor and my mother’s candor complemented each other perfectly, creating an atmosphere that had people feeling very comfortable in our house. I am left aspiring to be like them, but at a loss as to how to emulate them.

Doing small little extras was so much part of my mother that she never realized how much she did for people. She was constantly on the go, helping out in small ways and never thinking of herself as a person involved in doing extra chassadim.

Together they worked on forgiveness. When my father was badly hurt by a business partner, they worked on forgiving. If something offensive was said, my parents brushed it off, assuming that the person didn’t mean to hurt them.

Forgiveness was part of them because they were so humble. They never looked at themselves as better than others, never feeling that they deserved any honor. When they helped out someone needier, they never felt better than them. They simply did what was necessary.

My parents’ aspiration was to find the truth. They weren’t followers. They did what was right for them, regardless of what people all around them were doing.

But they were tested. Again and again. Would the middos of kibbud av va’eim, chessed, anivus and vatranus help them pull through the most difficult tests?

We got a glimpse of a new side of my parents. We learned that during the most difficult times, when we might want to run away from life, we must seek out Hashem and connect with Him.

Don’t run. Rather Examine, Search, Look, Pursue.

They looked and examined themselves .They searched for Hashem, pursued him and forged a strong a relationship with Him.

I have a vision of a tall ladder. I don’t know which rung my parents started out on. But they climbed it. Rung by rung. Higher and higher until they reached the very top. And I know that their emunah in Hashem was unwavering.

My parents had numerous struggles with parnassah. No matter how hard my father worked, the financial challenges kept on coming. I look back at their simchas hachayim, and I wonder where they got the strength to put aside their fears and anxieties, maintaining their shalom bayis and creating a calm atmosphere.

I see that this is how they lived. They examined themselves and pursued a relationship with Hashem.

It was at a routine well visit that they found out that their eighteen-month-old son was very sick. Suddenly they were thrown into a horrible nightmare. Cancer wards, survival percentages, chemo and transfusions became their language.

How did they continue exuding simchas hachayim?

Again I see that this was how they lived. They searched for Hashem and attached themselves to Him.

My brother’s bar mitzvah was a real milestone. My father gave heartfelt shevach v’hoda’ah to Hashem. But it was only a few months later when once again they were tested. The leukemia came back.

This time my brother didn’t survive. My parents lost their only son. And they still continued to maintain their simchah. They continued to search for Hashem knowing that only clinging to Him would help them deal with their tremendous pain.

A few years later they once again had to deal with illness. This time it was with my sister. It was also with my mother. They were each diagnosed with cancer in the same week.

But my parents continued to climb that ladder. Rung by rung. Searching for Hashem. The rung of self-examination to the rung of attaching themselves to Hashem. The rung of looking inward to themselves to the rung of becoming closer to Hashem.

And in reaching the top, they were omeid b’nisayon, reaching an exalted level of emunah.

That emunah brought them shleimus in their avodas Hashem.

It is not possible to be omeid b’nisayon and still be ordinary.

I look back at my growing-up years. My family name was well known. But I was too immature to feel any pride in who I was. My parents gave us so many special memories to hold on to. But I was too young to appreciate what they were creating for us.

I now realize that my parents were ordinary people….but their lives were extraordinary.   They were two ordinary people who struggled with their tremendous nisyonos in an extraordinary manner, growing together, achieving greatness on their journey to meet the King. And these two ordinary people, reaching exalted levels of bitachon, met their Creator in an extraordinary manner, with a song of emunah on their lips and simchas olam al rosham.

Today I want to shout out for everyone to hear, “Yes, I grew up in a special home, and I am grateful for all the wonderful memories I have. I am proud of where I come from. I am proud of my family name.”